Despite some people saying that the secret to longevity is all in the genes (so pick your parents wisely!), there is a lot we can to do age well. In fact, most of these secrets are really good things to do at any age in life. Here is a short summary of the ABCs of successful aging:
Staying active is key to staying fit, both mentally and physically. Learning new things, reading books, and doing anything that challenges your brain can help prevent dementia. But there is an important connection between being active mentally and physically. New research has shown that walking can improve memory, leading to enhanced brain regions involved in remembering. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps us make memories, tends to decline in size after the age of 50 (about 1% a year). However, research has shown that people who walked regularly (3 times a week for 45 minutes) showed an increase in the size of the hippocampus, as well as improvements on memory tests. The brain was actually getting bigger as a result of walking. Being physically active can take many forms, and can also involve having social connections when couples walk together, or friends meet to motivate each other to take more steps.
Having good balance in life is important, ranging from balancing work with pleasure, balancing our finances, and finding time to do what we enjoy, but physical balance may be a forgotten form of successful aging. Falls can happen as we age, ranging from falls in the bathroom, at night, tripping on a rug, and simply when getting up off the couch. These falls can be devastating as they can result in broken hips and bones, and hospitals stays. Injuries from falls can be a major setback in life, as it then prevents people from staying active, which can lead to a cascade of physical and mental health challenges. There is a lot we can to do improve balance. Try balancing on one leg (while holding on to something), and you might be surprised at how hard it is to balance for more than 5 seconds. Then challenge yourself to see how long you can do it. After a few days of these simple exercises, you will notice you are getting better at it, but the first few times can be a real challenge. The cerebellum, one of the most primitive parts of the brain, is getting a workout when you do balance training, and balance training can keep you out of the hospital, on your feet, and let you stay active.
Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian now in his 60s, was contemplating how to be active and age well, said “To me, if life boils down to one thing, it’s movement. To live is to keep moving.”
As we get older, it can be easy to fall out of touch with friends and family. We are often so busy working that we might not have a close group of people we can count on to just have a coffee with, and enjoy some time together. Retirement can also lead to a change in social connections, as many people’s jobs are also their ways to socialize. Some research suggests that loneliness can be just as bad for your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Older adults can also be targets for scams because of loneliness. It is estimated that one in four adults in America, at some point in their lives, say they are lonely. These feelings of isolation can lead to depression and also can have physical consequences.
Feeling lonely isn’t just for older people, as many younger adults who are heavily connected via technology and social media still report feelings of social isolation. While people may have fewer friends in older age simply because people move away or die, the friendships that are maintained in older age may be closer and even more important than just having hundreds of Facebook friends.
We can’t pick our parents wisely, but in older age, we need to pick friends wisely. In older age, we may choose to spend more time with the people we care most about, but also less time with those whose company we don’t enjoy. We want to be around people who make us feel good, are interesting and stimulating, and know us well. One older adult told me quite simply that the most important thing in life is love: finding it and keeping it all around you. John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach who lived to age 99 said the two most important words in the English language were “love” and “balance”.
Connecting with the right people, getting involved in a hobby or activity, and finding your calling (or a new calling) can be a great way to connect with others who have similar interests, and to explore new things in the world.
Putting all this together, research suggests that people who stay busy tend to age well, and many older adults say staying busy is important. But it is a different kind of busy than when you were younger and juggling a job, raising children or other responsibilities. Ideally, it is a kind of busy you where you have more control over what you do, what keeps you active, balanced, and connected—and that allows you to enjoy older age.
It is hard to summarize successful aging just with a few simple ABCs, as people age well in all sorts of different ways (that is why there is the rest of the alphabet!). But these ABCs capture some of the most important observations, anecdotes, and what the latest scientific research says about how to stay sharp, stay fit, and enjoy older age.
Featured image credit: “Conversing” by Cristina Gottardi. Public Domain via Unsplash.